PLANO, Texas – Laid-back Jim Lentz had 48 hours to get tough.
It was the early '80s, and the young, affable Lentz — now CEO of Toyota's North American operations — had just begun work as a merchandising manager in Toyota's Portland, Ore., office.
Though sales in the region were strong, his boss didn't like his management style.
"He thought I was too soft," Lentz said recently in an interview at his third-floor office at Toyota's temporary headquarters in this Dallas suburb. "He thought you managed with an iron fist."
The boss gave Lentz an ultimatum: Change or leave the company.
"I had a lot of soul-searching to do over a very long weekend," said Lentz, who had a wife and a newborn son at home.
Ultimately, he chose to take a demotion and transfer to California rather than alter his easygoing style.
That proved to be a good move.
Today, the still-mild-mannered Lentz rules Toyota's operations in North America with low-profile authority — a 70-hour-a-week chief exec who still manages to be a 4-handicap golfer.
"I never speak first when I'm sitting around a table with my managers because if I do, I know they will tell me what I want to hear," said Lentz, 59, who drives a Lexus NX hybrid crossover. "My job is to stimulate the organization and come up with the best decision I can."
Gentle but powerful
Despite his image as Gentle Jim, Lentz has quietly become the most powerful North America CEO in Toyota's 58-year history in the U.S., with responsibility for all of the company's operations — sales, marketing, engineering, manufacturing and corporate.
He and Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota Motor Corp., shook the auto industry last year with their decision to move the company's North American headquarters from its longtime base in Southern California to Plano.
All of Toyota's far-flung American divisions will be consolidated on a 100-acre campus rising from a site in west Plano — an enormous geographic and lifestyle change for 4,000 or more Toyota employees.
In short, the modest guy from the Midwest — a scrapper who played hockey until he was 50 — will probably leave a large imprint on one of the biggest automakers in the world.
Foot in the door with Ford
Lentz grew up in Glen Ellyn, Ill., a town of about 16,000 near Chicago, where he rode his bike to the baseball field in the summer and played hockey on frozen ponds in the winter.
His father, also named Jim, owned a printing business in town.
When he left home to attend the University of Denver, he planned to pursue a career in the financial world. "I thought I wanted to be a certified financial analyst," he said.
Although he had no particular interest in the auto industry, Lentz interviewed with Ford when the company came to the university in 1978 to talk with promising graduates.
Impressed with the company, Lentz signed on as a management trainee. Soon he was covering a region that included 235 Ford dealerships in seven mostly Western states.
Lentz spent much of his time learning the retail side of the automotive business from dozens of relatively small, hardworking dealers.
"I'd leave home at 8 a.m. on Monday morning, and my nearest dealer in Wyoming was six hours away," he said. "I would get back about 8 p.m. on Friday."
After a few years, Lentz heard that Toyota needed a merchandising manager in its Portland office — a job with less traveling.
In December 1982, he joined Toyota, headed soon for the showdown with the iron-fisted boss who only temporarily slowed his steady rise there.
Taking 'body punches'
Virtually all of Lentz's jobs over the years were on the sales and marketing sides of the business, forging a decadeslong link with dealers and retailing.
By 2007, Lentz had become president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA and a senior vice president of Toyota Motor North America — jobs that looked pretty cushy.
Three years later, though, he would be tested in a tense series of company crises.
First, cautious, conservative Toyota got mired in national controversy over allegations of unintended acceleration in some of its cars and the company's slow response.
Toyotas were supposedly accelerating on their own and running away with startled drivers — a scary scenario for consumers.
Then, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan so severely damaged Toyota's supplier base that Lentz initially feared he would have to suspend production in North America for as much as a year.
And finally, major fluctuations in the value of the yen dealt Toyota and other Japanese exporters a jolting financial blow.
"After three or four successive body punches, I realized that maybe rapid change was the way this industry was going to be, and you had better be able to respond to it," Lentz said.
He didn't sleep much during that period, devoting lots of thought to Toyota's handling of the unintended-acceleration issue.
Toyota paid $1.2 billion to settle the U.S. Justice Department's investigation of unintended acceleration and millions more in private suits.
That won't happen again, Lentz vows.
In 2010, Lentz had responsibility only for the sales arm of Toyota in North America. Today he is CEO over all of Toyota's divisions, and he wants everyone mixing and communicating at the new headquarters in Plano, which should be complete in 2017.
But that's no reason to rest, Lentz says. Even with what he has accomplished and dealt with over the last five years, Lentz insists that he's not thinking much about retirement.
"It's important for me to be able to say I'm adding value to the company," he said. "I still love this business. I will decide when it's time to go, when my replacement is ready and we can go on without skipping a beat."